Gowri Shankar: Surviving a king cobra bite and debunking 185 years of science For 185 years, science has assumed there was only one species of king cobra. Herpetologist Gowri Shankar shares his near-death experience that led to a groundbreaking discovery for the snake world.

How one man survived a deadly king cobra bite and debunked 185 years of science

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On the show today, Animal Enigmas - stories about elusive, mysterious and even dangerous species like the king cobra.

GOWRI SHANKAR: I've caught king cobras from the roof. You know, I climbed up the roof. I've carried like 2 meters, 3 meters king cobra. I've caught king cobras from the wells.

ZOMORODI: This is Gowri Shankar.

SHANKAR: From trees. Climbed up the tree, balancing.

ZOMORODI: I mean, are you crazy, Gowri? This is what's going through my mind right now. What's going through yours?

SHANKAR: I'm calm. I'm very calm in front of king cobras.

ZOMORODI: Gowri is calm because he's a herpetologist. He lives and works outside of Bangalore, India, and clearly loves his job.

SHANKAR: I live in the forest - my field station in Agumbe, so the internet is really bad.

ZOMORODI: And if you haven't guessed, his obsession is the majestic king cobra.

SHANKAR: King cobra - for me, it's a beautiful animal. One of the longest venomous snake in the world. King cobras can grow up to 5 meters. The maximum record is 6 meters. Ten kilo snake with speed and an attitude, the king-like size, packed with venom and the special thing about the king cobra - they specialize in eating other snakes. They don't eat rodents. They don't eat frogs, no mammals - nothing. They just specialize eating other reptiles, particularly snakes.

ZOMORODI: Meaning king cobras act as exterminators, which is especially important in India because...

SHANKAR: About 60,000 people die every year in India due to snake bites.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

SHANKAR: Compared with these other venomous snakes, king cobra bites are very, very, very low. They are not dangerous. They are as gentle as a puppy or a cat in your home because they don't want to bite you. Given a chance, they just move away from you.

ZOMORODI: But not everyone knows this. In many places, the king cobra sparks deep fear.

SHANKAR: They just kill them with spears or even a knife, or sometimes people have guns. They shoot them.

ZOMORODI: So Gowri has made it his mission to study the behavior of king cobras and educate as many people as possible about when to leave the snake alone or to call someone like him to take it away.

SHANKAR: Whenever there is a snake - when people call to check with them where exactly the snake is within the house or outside the house, if even about 100 meters from their house, we don't capture it. If it's in the kitchen, bathroom - sometimes the snake will be twice the size of the room, so it's very dangerous for me. I need to gently bring him out, put him in a king cobra bag.

ZOMORODI: You don't pick up the snake by the end of its tail and shove it in there?

SHANKAR: I do that.

ZOMORODI: Oh, do you?

SHANKAR: Yes. (Laughter) Yes, that's how I do. Just hold a snake by tail, and I have a hook, so I need to direct him towards a pipe for the bag where I place the bag and bag him.

ZOMORODI: Got you. And then you take your cobra in a bag out into where it usually lives.

SHANKAR: Exactly. Yeah. From the village, we take them away about 2 kilometers or 3 kilometers and release the snake back into the wild.

ZOMORODI: So they are able to live peacefully with the king cobra.

SHANKAR: Very peacefully. Very peacefully with this huge so-called dangerous snake in the world.

ZOMORODI: Amazing.

SHANKAR: They coexist.

ZOMORODI: Gowri has successfully rescued about 400 king cobras.

SHANKAR: About 400 times - I think no one in this world has done so many king cobra rescues.

ZOMORODI: But there was this one time when things went horribly wrong.

SHANKAR: So I was shocked. How did I get bitten?

ZOMORODI: How a near-death experience upended what people have assumed about the king cobra for 185 years. On the show today, Animal Enigmas. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stick with us.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, Animal Enigmas. And we were just talking to herpetologist Gowri Shankar about his mission to study and rescue king cobras.

SHANKAR: You'll find very few people like me, whether it's a combination of both the scientific mentality and, at the same time, be a good snake handler.

ZOMORODI: Mostly a good snake handler - about 15 years ago, there was an incident when Gowri was called to a village to remove several snakes.

SHANKAR: I had three king cobras in one place. This was happening right in the middle of the village. I wasn't prepared. Like, I had one king cobra bag. The first two snakes, I managed to put them in the bag, and the third one was in a small bag, which was very, very tiny. So I tried to squeeze him in. That's when he bit me through the bag.

ZOMORODI: Through the bag?

SHANKAR: Through the bag, he bit me.

ZOMORODI: Wait, so there is no - like, if you are bitten by a king cobra, that's that, pretty much.

SHANKAR: That's it. King cobras have neurotoxins, so they'll shut down all your nervous system. Your heart will eventually stop pumping blood and the whole system is shut down.

ZOMORODI: The only hope Gowri thought he might have was a vial of antivenom from Thailand that had never been known to work in India. But he thought, why not try?

SHANKAR: With that hope, I carried the antivenom, went to the hospital. As a scientist, I just wanted to record everything. I have the data with me. Every five minutes, I was telling what was happening in my body. I said, look, no one has this kind of data of a king cobra bite in India. Please, in case if I die, try to publish this. You know, this is how we test. This is how we test, you know? And I was writing it down. That's what I was thinking as a scientist, what if I'm alive?

ZOMORODI: Oh, my gosh. So you were excited, actually, despite the terrible situation that you were in.

SHANKAR: Yes. Yes, yes.

ZOMORODI: The antivenom from Thailand seemed to do nothing. Gowri could feel the venom from the snakebite seeping throughout his body.

SHANKAR: Complete swelling and a lot of allergic reaction - painful. When I say painful, it was like that kind of a burning pain.

ZOMORODI: But despite being in agony, Gowri didn't die. It turns out that the cobra bag had sort of protected him by stopping the king cobra's fangs from completely sinking into his flesh.

SHANKAR: He didn't inject enough venom to kill me. Whatever venom was there, that got into my body, which put me off for three days in the hospital. But I survived.

ZOMORODI: In the haze of his pain, Gowri started thinking, why didn't the antivenom from Thailand work? And why was developing an antivenom for king cobras in India so hard? For over 185 years, it was assumed that there was only one king cobra species but maybe not.

SHANKAR: The entire Southeast Asia from India all the way to Philippines, it's one species. But the antivenom doesn't work. So that means there should be different species. So that's when I came up with this thing, OK, let me work on their genetic part. I need to figure out whether they're different species or one species.

ZOMORODI: Herpetologists had suspected there were different kinds of king cobra species because some have different stripes.

SHANKAR: But no one proved it. So I took that as my PhD project and then started working on it - collected over 200 samples across their distribution from India all the way to Philippines.

ZOMORODI: What did you do next?

SHANKAR: To put it in a very simple way, I wanted to figure out how different these populations are for the general public to understand what is this genetic variation.

ZOMORODI: After eight years of researching the genetic variation of king cobras, Gowri proved there are four king cobra species.

SHANKAR: So that's the difference we found, that I declared to the world that it's four species, it's not one.

ZOMORODI: So you set the snake world, snake-studying scientist world on fire. But why do you think that people living in your community throughout India, throughout Southeast Asia need to know about this, that there are four distinct species of king cobra?

SHANKAR: That's a very good question. See, if people knew the different species, they could have come up with antivenom. Just imagine a number of people in Southeast Asia, every small island people are coexisting and living with these dangerous snakes. They work in the paddy fields or the agricultural land, and they do get bitten. So what if they think, OK, Thailand king cobra antivenom will work for us? No, it doesn't work in Borneo. It might not work in Sumatra. It might not work in Luzon, right? So to mitigate human-animal conflict, we have to understand whether there are different species. Or even if you want to conserve them or protect them, you have to know which species you're protecting. It's really important to understand how different these populations are.

ZOMORODI: Why do you think that the king cobra has remained such a mystery for so long?

SHANKAR: It's a huge-sized snake, and people have so many stories or myths. They just want to keep away from the snake. Even the scientists, for example, the researchers - nobody wants to work on them because it's quite dangerous to work with them. Even the people who handle cobras and kraits and other snakes - they are afraid of the species because of the sheer size and the venom and the attitude. But for me, I love them. I love the species. I love the way they behave, and the way he moves as a majestic animal. If you - I don't know. Manoush, you should come and see the king cobra in the wild, then you will fall in love with this animal.

ZOMORODI: That was herpetologist Gowri Shankar. You can watch his talk at ted.com.

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